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88 and counting, but slowly

Sadness and satisfaction. Two feelings struggle within me as our institute turns over the feeding program at Nazareno Chapel in Payatas to the local parish. Sadness because it means closing the book on our earliest social program there, one that has occupied my time and attention for some 25 years. Satisfaction because the parish of Our Lady of Divine Providence is ready to take over.

It was not always like this. Although Barangay Payatas occupies almost 20 percent of the land area of Quezon City, there was no parish there when I began, in 1985; now there are two, both with strong social programs. There was no regular Sunday Mass; now there are Masses in the two parish churches and in perhaps 15 chapels. The population was sparse, the dump small. Many of the people were migrants from the rural areas, eking out a living by raising pigs on kanin baboy (slop) gathered from the dump. It was a dumping ground not only for garbage but for dead bodies; on Sunday mornings in those first years I saw seven of them along the road. Later I was to see some of the 216 bodies recovered from the collapse of a mountain of garbage at the dump.

Together with my “favorite enemy,” Sandra Yu, who is now with the International Labor Organization, I started a feeding program for severely malnourished infants. “Celing” Concepcion, mother and housewife and resident of Payatas who is now an administrator at the parish clinic, handled the local details of weighing the infants and distributing packages of milk. Other good friends and some strangers began to provide financial assistance, and in time we moved to a regular five-days-a-week feeding program for malnourished preschoolers.

Food is prepared by the mothers, the children are given monthly medical checkups, and medicines for those who need them (many have primary complex) are provided by the “Divine” Parish clinic. Local volunteers Ann-Ann Mira and Gina Guevara supervise the daily activity and teach the kids to draw and read and sing, to pray before meals and clean their teeth afterwards. They, and Malou Abejar of our office, give lessons on nutrition and on positive discipline to the mothers. “Jingle” Mira has moved on from the feeding program to full-time work as a community organizer specializing in children’s issues.

Meanwhile, the parish has developed feeding centers of its own, modeled in part on ours, and it’s time the latter was incorporated into the parish’s social service program. However, we are not moving out of feeding programs all at once; we still support a satellite program in nearby Montalban.

The feeding program was a beginning, but it by no means guarantees a truly human standard of living for the children or for their families. Part of the problem is the number of children in these families. Statistics show that the greater the number of children in a family, the greater the chance that that family will be poor. Which causes which can be debated, but it is clear that spreading the family’s scarce resources—for health care and education, particularly—thinly over many children risks developing an hereditary proletariat of young people living from the dump or competing with other half-educated young people for the few unskilled or semi-skilled jobs available.

For this reason we initiated a community-based natural family planning (NFP) program, teaching methods that are cost-free, free of side effects, and approved by the Church. Local volunteers meet young mothers at the health clinic or call on them at home, instruct those who are interested, and follow them up. A careful follow-up study of 347 couples who had been exposed to the program indicated that some 27 percent are practicing and the “failure rate” or pregnancy rate is about the same as that of the pill.

Having made our point on NFP, we are now ready to turn over the program to the parish, while Malou Abejar, who has handled it, answers calls for assistance from other parishes.

The crowning jewel of our programs is the scholarship program, which looks to the long term by helping young people, often from desperately poor and dysfunctional families, to make their contributions to family and society as teachers, engineers, nurses, accountants, IT specialists and skilled mechanics. It is a breath of fresh air for an 88-year-old like myself to talk to these young people, to feel their problems of study and family breakup and financial needs, and to see the courage with which they face them. Twenty of them acted as interviewers for our family planning survey, and it was inspiring to see how they threw themselves into the work, supported and bonded with each other.

Currently we have 43 scholars, most of them at college level. These are long-term commitments on our part, normally for four years. At age 88, I am not confident of  being around to see the newest batch of five scholars graduate. But we must provide for them. We are focusing now on building up our financial reserves, trusting that our benefactors (many of whom are themselves along in years) will hold steady for four years, and that the Lord may inspire new donors to replace those who are falling off.

I close with a word of special thanks and a prayer for one of the latter, a very generous benefactor, Mrs. Riet Coumans of Nijmegen in The Netherlands, who died in April.

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